National theatre

What are the new rules on race and performance?

What are the new rules on race and performance? In the world of TV, everyone is busy apologising, self-censoring and denouncing their previous work. Ant and Dec have deleted routines in which they imitated Japanese girls and people of colour. The comedian Leigh Francis has expressed contrition for satirising Craig David in Bo’ Selecta! (which was nominated for a Best Comedy Bafta in 2004). Matt Lucas and David Walliams have withdrawn sketches featuring dark-skinned characters. A new order is being created. A new hierarchy of privileges and prohibitions based on ethnicity is taking root. We are strengthening the vice we sought to eliminate. The new rule appears to forbid actors from

As a lyricist, Ian Dury had few equals in the 20th century

The National Theatre’s programme of livestreamed shows continues with the Donmar’s 2014 production of Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston. The play is not a favourite. The story concerns a victorious Roman general who accepts the role of consul but when his political career falters he takes revenge by befriending his defeated enemy, Aufidius, and marching on his own city. There’s too much bitterness and aggression here, and no romantic sentiment at all. The only significant male/female relationship is between the great conqueror and his preening, pushy mother, Volumnia, who boasts about her son’s triumphs as if they were scouting badges or gold stars won for laying out the nature table. Coriolanus

Privatisation is the best option for the South Bank Centre

I must have written about this subject 100 times in 30 years and I’m still having to restate the bloody obvious. London’s South Bank Centre, which has just gone bleating to the government for more money, is the biggest subsidy guzzler in the country and the despair of the rest of British arts. The South Bank receives £19 million a year from the Arts Council, on top of the many millions that go to each of the so-called ‘resident ensembles’ that perform within it. What it does with the money is anyone’s guess because, as far as the eye can see and the nostrils can smell, the South Bank is

The National Theatre’s live-streaming policy is bizarre

The National’s bizarre livestreaming service continues. On 7 May, for one week only, it released a modern-dress version of Antony and Cleopatra set in a series of strategy rooms, conference centres and five-star hotel suites. The lovestruck Roman was played by a louche, gruff, brooding Ralph Fiennes. Why is this man so watchable? He lacks the least mark of distinction. Face, height, physique and vocal ability are all in the middling range. In real life he could easily have assumed the role of the research assistant’s deputy. Perhaps it’s the Reggie Perrin ordinariness that makes his presence bewitching. Shakespeare was on unusually patchy form when he assembled this huge, rambling

Worth watching for the comments thread alone: NT’s Twelfth Night livestream reviewed

‘Enjoy world-class theatre online for free,’ announces the National Theatre. Every Thursday at 7 p.m. a play from the archive is livestreamed. I watched Twelfth Night, from 2017, starring Tamsin Greig as a female Malvolio. What a handsome, absorbing and brilliantly staged production this is. Greig’s comically petulant Malvolia won the plaudits, rightly, while the underrated Tim McMullan turned Sir Toby into a wry, wobbly, loveable drunkard, like a rock star enjoying a month on the lash. Having seen the original, I preferred the online experience, not least because of the noisy comments thread beside the screen. ‘How do you get Russian subtitles?’ ‘When’s the interval?’ ‘Why a female Malvolio?’

The best theatre of the 21st century

Not looking great, is it? Until we all get jabbed, theatres may have to stay closed. And even the optimists say a reliable vaccine is unlikely to arrive before Christmas. As the darkness persists, here’s a round-up of my leading experiences over nearly two decades as a reviewer. There’s been a surge of output. More theatres have opened, especially on the London fringe, and several have created annexes for experimental work. Musicals have proliferated. The rise of the box-set has been excellent for the West End. Global hits such as Game of Thrones have created a host of British stars with enough clout to sell out a three-month run in

The script’s a dud: Antipodes at the Dorfman Theatre reviewed

The Antipodes, by the acclaimed dramatist Annie Baker, is set in a Hollywood writers’ room. Seven hired scribblers are brainstorming a new animated feature under the direction of a mysterious, bearded multimillionaire, Sandy, who seems thoroughly bored with the movie-making process. The script is in its early stages and Sandy decrees that the central character must be a monster. That’s all. The writers can fill in the details. He asks them to indulge in a free-association experiment by describing their first sexual encounter or the scariest moment in their lives. Long speeches follow. Very long, some of them. Sandy loses interest in the project, not surprisingly, and starts to absent

A 90-minute slog up to a dazzling peak: ‘Master Harold’… and the boys reviewed

Athol Fugard likes to dump his characters in settings with no dramatic thrust or tension. A prison yard is a favourite. He specialises in bored, talkative characters who squirt the time away swapping memories and indulging in bursts of creative play-acting. It’s dull to watch but good fun to perform. Thesps love to step out of character and road-test a range of fictional personalities. ‘Master Harold’… and the boys is classic Fugard. We’re in an empty restaurant in South Africa in 1950. Lunch service has ended. Two waiters twiddle away the afternoon discussing sex, ballroom dancing and beating women (as if this were a standard feature of male behaviour). Enter

Funny, short and cheap to stage, Hansard is an excellent bet for a transfer

Hansard is the debut play by actor Simon Woods, who enjoys a deep knowledge of his subject. The characters are a middle-aged couple, the Heskeths, who occupy ‘a country house in Oxfordshire. Georgian. Good bones. Not large’. The year is 1988 and Robin is a busy Tory MP whose wife Diana has realised that she loathes the Conservative party and all its doings. ‘They talk a good game,’ she says, ‘but they’re unbelievably dangerous.’ As a lifelong leftie, she has even started begging strangers to vote against her husband, whose policies ‘inflict damage on the most vulnerable in society’. She also suspects him of philandering and has taken to appearing

A decorative pageant that would appeal to civic grandees: The Secret River reviewed

The Secret River opens in a fertile corner of New South Wales in the early 1800s. William, a cockney pauper transported to Australia for theft, receives a pardon from the governor and decides to plant a crop on 100 acres of Aboriginal land. His doting wife, Sal, begs him to take her and their young sons back to her beloved London. They make a deal. William must succeed as a farmer within five years or pay for their passage home. He clashes with a tribe of spear-waving Aboriginals who make it clear that they want him off their ancestral turf. Neither side speaks the other’s language. ‘This is mine now.

Hare-brained | 18 July 2019

The National Theatre’s boss, Rufus Norris, has confessed that he ‘took his eye off the ball’ when it came to female writers and he plans to strike an equal balance between the sexes in future. Good news for male scribblers who’ll know that they’ve been selected on merit but rather demoralising for females who’ll suspect that they’re just making up the numbers. Sir David Hare, who has written or adapted 25 shows for the National, could easily solve the NT’s sexual identity crisis by announcing that he’s a woman. His latest is a modern version of Ibsen’s barmy but enjoyable fable Peer Gynt, which mixes folklore, fantasy, social comment and

Poetic and profound

Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote the movie Manchester by the Sea, shapes his work from loss, disillusionment, small-mindedness, hesitation and superficiality, all the forgettable detritus of life. The Starry Messenger is about Mark, a disappointed astronomer aged 52, who gives public lectures at a city planetarium. He loves his subject even though it let him down and every week he tackles the daft questions of his pupils with superhuman patience. The same two pests always raise their hands. One is a burly misanthrope who disbelieves all experts, the other is a high-flying oddball who craves attention. Mark starts a slow-burn affair with Angela, a single mum who needs a role model

Hilarity with heart

Small Island, based on Andrea Levy’s novel about Jamaican migrants in Britain, feels like the world’s longest book review. We meet Hortense, a priggish school teacher, and her cool, handsome boyfriend who survive on a pittance in the Caribbean. Then we skip back to Hortense’s childhood in a house dominated by a bullying preacher who forbids conversations at mealtime. Then we cross the Atlantic to Lincolnshire and meet a chirpy blonde, Queenie, whose auntie runs a sweetie shop. Does Queenie want a job selling sweeties? Yes, says Queenie to her auntie. All this takes ages, and it feels like a deadly earnest sociology lecture. Then a stiff young bank clerk

Toxic waste

Bruce Norris is a firefighter among dramatists. He runs towards danger while others sprint in the other direction. His Pulitzer-winning hit Clybourne Park studied ethnic bigotry among American yuppies and it culminated in a gruesomely funny scene in which smug liberals exchange racist jokes in public. The play was morally complex, dramatically satisfying and an absolute hoot to watch. His new show, Downstate, co-commissioned by the NT and Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, takes on a far crunchier topic than racism. Child sex abuse. We’re in a residential home occupied by a quartet of tagged offenders monitored by a sharp-tongued probation officer. We meet the molesters. Fred was once a music

You’ve been scammed

The NT’s new play is an update of Pamela, a sexploitation novel by Samuel Richardson. It opens with Stephen Dillane and Cate Blanchett stranded in a concrete garage dressed as French maids. On one side, a black Audi saloon. Mid-stage, colourful blinking lights. At the edges, four other actors lurking. The main characters have no names so let’s call them Stephen and Cate. Who are they? Adulterous workmates, or a divorcing couple, or a male boss and his abused underling? The script reveals nothing about their characters, their backgrounds, their location or their intentions, and the audience’s natural reaction to this indifference is further indifference. Stephen and Cate grapple physically

‘I wished Jimmy Porter would just shut up’

Gary Raymond must have been wondering if it was the end of a promising career — curtains. He was starring in The Rat Patrol, a wartime adventure series. Co-star Justin Tarr had managed to roll the jeep Raymond and fellow actor Christopher George were travelling in. Raymond escaped with a badly broken ankle (he tells me it still gives him jip). George had more serious injuries, including an injured back and a heart contusion. Raymond lived to act another day, but when The Rat Patrol ended after two series, it really was the end of his Hollywood years. But what a few years he’d had, in El Cid alongside Charlton

All in the mind | 3 January 2019

The Tell-Tale Heart is based on a teeny-weeny short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The full text appears in the programme notes. Here’s the gist. A madman kills his landlord and is haunted by a ghostly heartbeat that prompts him to confess his crime. Anthony Neilson’s adaptation turns both characters into women and gives away the ending in the opening scene. An English writer lodging with a young Irish landlady is accused of murdering her by a detective. At a stroke, all uncertainty is effaced. The only remaining mystery is why Neilson can’t understand his chosen genre. He tries to interest us in the causes of the murder, and we

Love hurts

There is very little art about modern poverty, because who wants to know? It is barely acknowledged, unless there is redemption, or salvation, as in A Christmas Carol. Those most suited to make it — those who are actually poor — are usually too busy doing something else, such as surviving. So, it is remarkable to learn that Alexander Zeldin’s play LOVE, a success at the National Theatre in 2016, is now a film and will air this weekend on BBC2. The closest thing to it recently was Benefits Street, which was exploitative and, therefore, an instant hit. Zeldin is 33. He read French at Oxford University and is artist-in-residence

This is a man’s world

Sir David Hare’s weird new play sets out to chronicle the history of the Labour movement from 1996 to the present day. But it makes no mention of Corbyn, Momentum, the anti-Semitism row or rumours of a breakaway party. The drama is located in the dead-safe Miliband era and it opens with talk of a leadership election. The two best candidates, Pauline and Jack, are old lovers from university. Pauline is a doctor who entered politics when budget cuts threatened the hospital where her mother was being treated for cancer. Jack is a colourless Blairite greaser, a sort of Andy Burnham without the mascara, who is still besotted with Pauline

Less is Moor

It’s intelligent, enjoyable, beautiful to look at and funny in unexpected places, yet Othello at the Globe didn’t quite meet my sky-high expectations. The star should be the Moor but André Holland, from Alabama, can’t rival the magnetism of Mark Rylance (Iago). Holland’s diction is a strain for British ears. We’re used to hearing consonants bashed out — rata-tat-tat — like a rifle range, but his looser southern accent made some of his lines indistinct. Stately Jessica Warbeck lacks Desdemona’s impulsive streak and she plays her as a mature and self-possessed recipient of several Businesswoman of the Year awards. It was strange to see this matriarchal figure meekly assenting to